I have to tell you, this trip was a little weird. Perhaps I should have thought twice about leaving for the the airport straight from a funeral, but I feel like it set the off-kilter tone for this whole gig. I liked it, obviously, because I'm comfortable with strange, but I'm still a little in awe of this one. Let me tell you why.
Right off the bat, I was cranky. My overnight to Munich was crowded and the beds in first class were already full, so I couldn't get the upgrade. Someone was kind enough to bump me to a bulkhead, but I was still sat next to a man who didn't respect the boundary implied by the armrest and spent nearly the whole nine hours wedged awkwardly up against my arm. Then, I nearly got trapped in Munich because my ticket to Belgrade was somehow not valid. They had actually closed the gate, but, again, someone was kind enough to sort it out for me. Honestly, that whole 'kindness of strangers' thing? I couldn't survive without it.
Not a bad view from the plane.
Finally, I arrived in Belgrade. The airport was considerably less creepy than the one in Honduras and I felt comfortable enough getting a taxi on my own. The first person that offered was wearing an official enough-looking ID badge, so off I went. My driver was born and raised in Belgrade and was more than happy to tell me about the city, its politics and its attractions. When I mentioned I was only there for one day, he said (in his comedically Balkan accent) "This is tragedy! You can see nothing in this time! I will show you my city!" My own personal tour-guide (and a non-threatening one, at that) seemed like the right way for me to see what I could of the city, so I took him up on his offer. After a lovely hot shower at my hotel, he picked me back up and took me to the 'old city'.
Leaving the hotel, we drove past the 'gypsy town' located in the middle of the city. It was a collection of thrown-together shacks laid out haphazardly in a village with hijacked electricity and no obvious means of obtaining fresh water. I saw a group of children cooking some kind of meat on an open fire. It was a pretty incredible sight.
Our first stop was Kalemegdan (Калемегдан), the Belgrade Fortress. It was a gorgeous day, so the area (now a park and tourist attraction) was packed with people. My driver nonchalantly bribed the parking attendant and we suddenly managed to find a very convenient spot near the entrance that was previously closed. Нэйша (pronounced 'NEY-shah'), my driver and tour guide, got out and walked with me through the ruins of the fotress.
Kalemegdan, parts of which were built as early as the 15th century.
It really was a beautiful day.
Afterwards, we went for a drive around the new city, while he gave a brief summary of the last 50 years or so in the area's history. Essentially, each big city in the world looks like most other ones, but I took pictures of the buildings because they were neat.
Hotel in New Belgrade.
He also drove me past the buildings that the US bombed back in the '90s that still stand as monuments to that moment in history. He asked if I wanted a picture there, but I didn't feel right making an attraction of destruction that killed civilians. He seemed oddly disappointed.
By that time, I was both hungry and tired. I asked him to show me a good restaurant with real local cuisine near the water. There is a line of boats on the shore of the Danube that house different restaurants. The parking is sort of central and then you walk along the docks to the various restaurants. He walked with me to a nice-looking Serbian restaurant and spoke to the host for me. At this point, I hesitated, expecting him to tell me what I owed him for his services. Before I could ask him, he simply sat down at the table the host showed us to and opened a menu. It was a bit awkward, but he was good company and told me about his family and his dreams of owning a cottage on the Danube. The food, however, was awful. I ordered a 'Serbian delicacy' which essentially equated to fishsticks wrapped in bacon covered with ranch dressing.
Exhausted (and still a little hungry), I returned to my hotel. I wish I had taken pictures in the lobby, but I try not to come off as too much of a tourist when I'm by myself. In any case, it felt like going back in time. There was a strange, '60s Eastern Bloc, cold war vibe that made me believe it had housed its fair share of KGB agents and international spies. I fell asleep quickly but woke up for a few hours in the night and had to pass the time with Serbian late-night television until I fell asleep again.
The next morning, I picked up my patient from a private hospital in an affluent neighbourhood in the new city. I had never seen anything quite like it. The hospital was housed in a four-story, converted apartment buildling. It was absolutely gorgeous, with lots of sunlight, wrought-iron chandeliers, a well-equipped kitchen with private chef on each floor of three rooms and classical music playing in the background. I was invited to sit for coffee with the hospital's owner and administrator prior to beginning our journey home. It was a wonderfully bizarre experience and I was almost sorry to leave. I'm sure my patient felt the same way.
The trip home was fairly uneventful. Our flight between Belgrade and Frankfurt on Lufthansa was staffed by a collection of Die Hard villians, but the service was excellent and the seats were comfortable. After about 26 hours of combined travel, I blissfully passed out in a hotel in the tiny town of Paducah, Kentucky.
Before heading back to Toronto, I walked to a Cracker Barrel restaurant for breakfast, where I was introduced to some impeccable Kentucky hospitality (and adorable accents). I specifically chose the Cracker Barrel because of fond memories of stopping there with my family on our way to Myrtle Beach for vacation every year, and it was exactly as I remembered it. The airport had a little viewing garden near the runway where I spent my last few hours on this trip out in the sunshine, enjoying the quiet calm of the small town.
I flew home via O'Hare (where I saw a nun in her habit on a netbook in the first class lounge) and made it home safely, if a little shocked by the strangeness of it all.
The rest of the photos can be found here.